Who doesn’t love a good fact? There is an entire genre of games dedicated to our ability to recall them, aptly entitled ‘trivia contests’ in English. Setting this form up in a box led to one of the most successful boardgames of all time, Trivial Pursuit, while dramatising the agonising uncertainties in the face of such questions gave rise to one of the most successful TV game shows of all time, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Clearly, we love facts. So what could be dangerous about them?
I have previously made the case that understanding facts as knowledge is misleading since all facts are the residue of the practices that produced and justified them, and further that it is better to understand knowledge as a practice, or rather, a collection of practices. Nothing in this arrangement gives us reasons to be suspicious of facts, since all I’ve done is change the context for understanding what a fact is, and cast doubt that someone who can repeat facts (who has ‘general knowledge’) is genuinely in possession of something that could be justifiably termed ‘knowledge’. Yet there is something significantly misleading about our love of facts whenever it emerges in a political context: facts are invoked as a means of ending discussion, and this is toxic to politics.
The problem is so subtle it would be easy to miss it, and rests with the way we have constructed the relationship between politics and the sciences, a topic repeatedly explored by Bruno Latour. Democratic politics, in the sense of the political practices of the ancient Greeks, was about every citizen having a chance to be heard and decisions being made in a manner that renders everyone equal. Contemporary democracy, needless to say, offers neither of these things. We vote for a representative based upon geographical criteria, and every citizen has the opportunity to speak, but only the famous or those accredited as experts have a chance to be heard, since we have largely eliminated public debate and replaced it with the circus of the abnormal we call ‘news’.
What facts offer to contemporary government is a means of circumventing politics, because where ‘the facts are known’ there is no need for discussion – or so the standing policy goes. This is a tremendously convenient state of affairs for politicians, because they do not need to engage in politics at all (at least, not with the electorate) whenever they have a convenient fact at hand to short circuit any discussions. To make matters worse, those in opposition feel compelled to act as if politics were only a matter of establishing the correct facts, and not about discussing the meaning of those facts, let alone taking into account the practices involved in producing facts in the first place.
Facts are seductive because they remove the need to think, or to talk, about anything. The policy conflicts over climate change circumvent any actual political discussion since it has been reduced to a simple ‘battle for the facts’: either human activity has tangibly affected the global climate (fact!) or climate researchers have misrepresented the data (fact!). It’s facts versus facts in the arena of public derision, and nobody seems to be quite aware how the focus on ‘which facts are true’ removes any productive discussion on the topic. We have successfully managed to turn politics into a game show, a sport – and the news, in its commitment to ignoring the familiar and reporting only the unusual, facilitates this narrowing of vision.
As someone who feels very strongly about our worrying relationship to our own world, I’ve spent a decade watching on in horror as ‘climate change’ replaces ‘global warming’ as a means of reinforcing a partisan conflict that is hugely effective at blocking any discussion of the problems of human exploitation of limited resources. To make climate change the issue is to pick out one conflict over the facts and fail to have a discussion about the interrelation of dozens of issues, such as fires in Indonesia that only Al Jazeera paid significant attention to, or the shocking rate of extinctions in our time, which doesn’t even qualify as news any more because it’s all-too-familiar.
I have suggested that part of this problem comes from continuing to think, as Plato did, about a single real world, when the vast range of knowledge-practices might better be understood as a multiverse, as many real worlds that overlap. Facts, in this understanding (the products of objective knowledge-practices), are what can be stabilised between these worlds, whether through the tremendous work of scientists to produce apparatus that resist objections, or though the deductive work of historians, forensic police, and many more practices besides.
Yet the meaning of facts is not objective knowledge, and never can be so. That ‘smoking causes cancer’ is not a reason to stop smoking in itself; you have to start bringing in moral judgements about death, or life expectancy, or perhaps economic judgements about healthcare spending before this fact acquires so specific a meaning. These meanings are not ‘mere opinions’ that the facts can simply brush aside. The vast open spaces of meaning are something we have to negotiate for ourselves, both individually and collectively, and this process is utterly separate from those practices that give rise to the facts. Part of this negotiation of meaning is what is, or should be, called politics.
You could be forgiven for thinking that I am against facts, that they don’t matter to me, or that I want to make all facts entirely relative. But I am actually intensely serious about factual knowledge, for all that I recognise that it is often, as the phrase ‘trivia’ implies, trivial. It annoys me when my son’s picture book mislabels a newt as a lizard, or his book about sea creatures has a picture of a red-eared terrapin, which only lives in fresh water. They got the facts wrong, and that bothers me. But it bothers me far more that we get politics wrong by thinking it is a solely a question of establishing the facts. The facts by themselves aren’t enough: we need to establish the meaning of the facts. And that is something that cannot be done on our behalf; we must do it ourselves.